By: Lucas Duffy-Tumasz
Working with Unite Here this summer has changed my previous conception of what a union is and what it is capable of. Prior to this summer, most of my experience with and knowledge about unions came from being heavily involved in Student Labor Dialogue (SLD), a student run group at bard. Through supporting workers in contract negotiations with the college and starting various labor related campaigns in support of unionized and un-unionized Bard workers, I became familiar with how unions function. My experience at Unite Here expanded my conception of unions. Yes, unions deal with vitally important things like fighting to obtain fair contracts for their members and filing grievances when that contract has been broken, but they can be so much more.
As I explained in my previous blog post, when I got to Philadelphia in mid-June Unite Here Philadelphia was not doing business as usual. In response to almost a whole workforce that they represent being laid-off, a 15 day fast was started. The fast was done in hope of getting the workers jobs back, but was also a response to injustice that had been done to all Philadelphia public school students. The fast for safe schools was more than about getting workers rehired, it was part of broader movement to stop the destruction of public education as we know it. The fast, and other rallies and actions, forced the state and city to give some of the needed funds desperately needed by the public schools.
I sat in on a meeting, shortly after the 15 day fast had ended, where workers from different locals meet monthly to check in on each others issues and campaigns. This was eye opening for me, as I had previously thought of each individual local as working for their interests. What I saw at the meeting was far from that. Hotel and casino workers of different races, genders, and socio-econmic classes, shared ideas and strategies for the upcoming one day fast to get the student safety staff rehired. Furthermore, many of them committed to fast for a day in front of the school district building.
The success which was the fast brought members of the various locals of the Philadelphia office and other locals from across the country. Some of the fasters during the 15 day fast were in fact hotel workers, members of a separate local. My take away from the fast, the above mentioned meeting and other experiences while working for Unite Here, was that employees and members of the union fought together with their fellow workers and union members not always for personal economic interests, but because they knew they were fighting the same fight.
Hugely influential gay rights activist and Unite Here employee Cleve Jones shared his story during a training and discussion—another union meeting that brought workers from various locals—he lead on the intersection of the LGBTQI movement and the labor movement. During his presentation on how Unite Here campaigns intersect with the LGBTQI movement, he shared a view held by himself and many of the gay rights activist he worked with while working for Havery Milk in San Francisco. A view that the gay rights movement was part of a larger movement. The same movement as the civil rights movement, feminist movement, and ant-Vietnam war movement—the movement for social justice. This summer, I learned that a union can do much more than fight for fair contracts for its members.